Al Regnery invoked the late Barry Goldwater to make a point about Harriet Miers. He was sipping on a glass of something, swirling the ice around. The beat-down of a gentle White House nominee was finally over, and the conservative movement's most acclaimed publisher was wearing the crisp smile of the victor. It was Thursday night, but in Regnery's mind, it was 1957.
The image in his head: Goldwater, the right's rising star from the West, on the Senate floor castigating his fellow Republican, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Goldwater accused Ike of "subverting" the U.S. economy by proposing the largest peacetime budget ever. He blasted Ike's "modern Republicanism" slogan, and said it was "curious that the administration's departure from its pledges to the American people should occur during what I believe will be the rather brief tenure of this splinterized concept of Republican philosophy."
The speech made national headlines and marked the beginning, as Goldwater later wrote in his autobiography, of "the eventual conservative break with the party's so-called moderate wing."
Regnery, who is writing a history of the conservative movement, got straight to his point.
"I think for a lot of conservatives, our mind-set is we're not Republicans," he explained. "We're swimming upstream, we're holding the party accountable, we're on the outside. Our job is always swimming upstream."
It is useful psychology for conservative activists, this idea of the permanent, beleaguered underdog. Ambitions are never quite fulfilled. Justice is never quite done. An aggrieved state of mind is a fertile state of mind. It is the kind of thinking whose roots were planted more than 50 years ago. In Goldwater's case, he owed his 1952 election as an Arizona senator to Ike. And yet when his frustration with Eisenhower's spending peaked, he turned on his friend, calling Ike's administration a "dime-store New Deal."
Democrats certainly have their noisy scrums -- the left is either angry at the center for acting like Republicans or the center is blaming the left for election debacles. But the Republican right seems to have a special, disciplined vigilance when it comes to internal warfare. Where else can you find the ironic spectacle of a House speaker being shown the guillotine by the very crew of conservative revolutionaries he created? That was Newt Gingrich's fate in 1998, forced to resign after leading Republicans to the first House majority in four decades.
After reneging on his read-my-lips pledge of "no new taxes," then-President George H.W. Bush found himself hissed and hounded by conservatives and ultimately undermined as he went on to lose his 1992 reelection bid. Even the beloved Ronald Reagan got smacked from time to time by his brethren on the right. An all-star lineup of conservatives went after him over his dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his support of a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, went so far as to call the Gipper a "useful idiot for Soviet propaganda." Three decades later, phoning in from the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, Phillips said: "My loyalty is not to any political personality or any political party."
Regnery, publisher of the American Spectator, just happened to be hosting his magazine's big dinner on Thursday, the same day Miers withdrew as a Supreme Court nominee. The luminaries of the right were all there at the Hotel Monaco in Chinatown. The drinks were flowing at the pre-meal reception, and regrets were not to be found. It was suggested to Regnery that the Miers humiliation didn't exactly come at a great time for President Bush, considering his shrinking popularity, his war woes, ethical troubles on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and an assortment of other headaches. Wasn't the anti-Miers campaign a little like the cavalry riding down from the hills and shooting the wounded?
Regnery just listened, clearly unmoved.
"That's immaterial," he said. "Principle rises above politics." He added: "It's come back to us this week -- this is what we should be doing."
The trench warriors still tell cliched jokes about the conservative movement's evolution, about meetings held in phone booths way back when. There is even wistfulness for the movement's struggling beginnings, shaped by the 1953 publication of Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" and the founding of the National Review. But the facts are the facts: Republicans have won five of the last seven presidential elections and control both houses of Congress, 28 governorships and more state legislatures than Democrats. Conservatives are not shy about claiming credit for these successes. One might presume there would be more celebration over the accumulation of power.
Conservative GOP consultant Craig Shirley, author of a book on Reagan, explains why there is not: "The natural condition of the modern conservative movement is to always be in a state of revolution. Conservatives are, by definition, uncomfortable with power."
Even in the best of times, Shirley's conclusion is observable on the right's social circuit. Each year the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, hosts its DisHonor Awards, a humorously vicious night of "liberal-media" bashing. The awards program unfolds like the Oscars, except the winners -- network correspondents, commentators, newspaper journalists -- are not there to accept their, um, prizes. Instead, a parade of conservatives truck to the podium to accept the "awards." They serve up savage jokes about those responsible for the allegedly biased reports on subjects ranging from the president to Cuba to some hero of the right. It is all in the name of yuks, a feel-good event for the faithful, recharging them for battle.
But battle against whom? ABC News? Do the faithful really crave validation from the media outlets they seem to loathe? There is often an odd, defensive character to these evenings, typically officiated by conservatives who are themselves bestselling authors and big-time pundits -- folks such as Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. At these award galas, one would never get the impression that there are more than 4,000 conservative radio talk show hosts, if Craig Shirley's database is any guide, who can be easily tapped by conservative activists. There is Fox New Channel, king of cable news and awfully friendly to conservatives. There is a thriving conservative book publishing business, the emergence of state-based conservative think tanks and the growth of conservative churches -- all vehicles to promote the conservative message. Not to mention that the political levers in Washington are firmly in Republican hands.
But psychically, it's important to have a target to stoke the troops' anger. Often that target is the mainstream media, and sometimes that target is one of your own.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, noted the recent visits of Republican congressional leaders to a regular conservative meeting forum. The leaders implored conservative activists to urge rank-and-file members not to make a lot of noise about increased federal spending. As Keene recounted, the logic of the leaders boiled down to this: "If you criticize the Congress for spending, that hurts us because we control Congress."
Keene's response: "Well, that's too bad."
"Eighty percent of the time," he added, "if you're a Republican conservative or a conservative Republican there's no problem. The rubber meets the road when the party asks you to do something that conflicts with your principles."
As a practical matter, Keene suggested, "if you're an ideological activist, you should never be happy because the politician should always be asked to do more."
Lee Edwards, a Heritage Foundation fellow who has written widely about the conservative movement, said: "What we have is the principled conservatives vs. the pragmatic conservatives." Conservative Republicans, he added, are still struggling with the classic question: "How do we maintain a governing majority?" As Edwards sees it, "If you're going to be a successful political movement, you've got to walk on two legs -- and one is principle, and the other is pragmatic. You can't be leaning too far to one side or another, or else you're going to fall."
At the American Spectator dinner, after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had delivered the keynote, after the snapper and the chocolate mousse had been served, cigars were lit and dancing commenced. On a table outside the ballroom were free copies of the November issue of the Spectator, the cover of which contains the headline: "Bush and His Base."
Inside is the publisher's note by Alfred S. Regnery, titled "George W. Bush: A Loss for Conservatism?" Considering what Bush has been facing from his right flank, the magazine's latest issue seems almost prescient.
"The falling poll numbers reflect his base, melting away," writes Regnery. " 'Did I put my faith in this man, did I believe his campaign promises, did I work for him, did I send my money -- all for this?' ask conservatives."